Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka
This Sunday is the third Sunday in our "Hot Topics" sermon series. This week's topic is Suffering.
Here we are on week three of our “Hot Topics” sermon series. This week’s topic: God and suffering.
It’s a worthwhile topic for a few reasons. But the most significant reason, in my mind, is the obstacle to faith it represents. “If there’s an all-loving, all good God,” goes the question, “if that’s the case, why is human life so filled with pain and suffering?”[i] Because, if God is good, why would God allow such things terrible things to happen?” It’s one of the biggest stumbling blocks to belief.
I’m going to start this sermon by saying that there’s no easy answer to the question: “why suffering?” There’s no satisfying explanation. This may seem like a cop-out. But let me explain.
First, there’s no easy answer because we can’t say that suffering is always inherently bad, or evil.
The great Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall points out that without suffering, without the capacity to feel pain, we wouldn’t know to take our hand out of a fire to prevent getting burned. Without loneliness, we wouldn’t be able to understand or feel the joy of friendship or companionship. Without shame, we wouldn’t understand if we wronged someone or not. Without struggle, we wouldn’t be able to strive for achievement, or grow as human beings. And perhaps, most importantly, without suffering we couldn’t love. Because love requires vulnerability. To love someone means there is always the possibility that they could hurt us, or we could lose them. If we didn’t feel the pain of loss when people we love die, it means we probably didn’t understand what it meant to love them in the first place.[ii]
So in some sense suffering is built-in to reality, to existence itself. It’s part of God’s creation design. Suffering can bring us closer to each other and to God. And without it, we wouldn’t be human.
So we can’t say suffering is all bad or wrong. But, here’s the second point: There’s no easy answer because we also can’t say that suffering is all good, either.
Now, often, we well-meaning Christians try to cope with suffering by attributing it to God. We’ll say that each suffering is actually part of God’s plan. Something like “the Lord gave you that burden so you would learn to love him.” “God gave you that cancer so you would realize what’s really important in life.” Or the ever-present “everything happens for a reason.” Usually, when we say stuff like this our intentions are good. We have a desire to ease each other’s suffering. Because if it’s all part of the plan, then perhaps it’s bearable. But as good as our intentions may be, they can mistakenly play into an argument against God. It’s one thing to speak of a single person’s misfortune or suffering. But if everything is all part of God’s plan, does that mean that the Nazi holocaust, the death of six million Jews was all part of God’s plan? What about the scourge of AIDS? Earthquakes? Bone cancer in children?
We can’t say suffering is inherently bad. But we can’t say that all suffering is good. Because some suffering is evil, not good, and not intended by God. But in our effort to get God off the hook, we actually get God into a bind. Because, even unintentionally, it makes God not only responsible for the good stuff, it also makes God the author of pain and evil in our world, for some hidden, arbitrary purpose.
There’s no easy answer to the question. Like I said, it sounds like a bit of a cop-out. But it’s simply an acknowledgment of something fundamental about being human. As the Apostle Paul says, “we see as through a glass darkly.” That is to say, as human beings, we swim in the water of our own history. We aren’t able to step outside of our lives and get a birds eye view on all of history and all of reality. We can’t even seem to be capable of self-reflection most of the time, let alone reflective on everything everywhere. The truth is real, but we’re only able to get a partial glimpse of it. It seems that the reason and existence of suffering is one of those things.
Suffering is, in the end, ultimately a mystery. One that Christians and non-Christians alike simply must live with.
Suffering is a mystery. There’s no easy, definitive, answer. But the word “mystery,” coming from the Greek “mysterion” means something more like “scratching the surface.” There’s a depth to things that we can’t seem to get to. There may not be a clear answer. But we can get a glimpse, a taste, a sample.
I’m reminded of something the novelist and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner once wrote in his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. In it, Buechner admits that there isn’t always a clear answer to the deeper questions and struggles of faith. Suffering is one of them. In the absence of clear answers and explanations, Buechner says that “God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.”[iii] God doesn’t give answers. God gives God’s self to us. Christianity isn’t just a bundle of answers to questions. Christianity bears witness to a God who is real and active in the world. Who doesn’t exist somewhere out there in abstraction for the purposes of logical contemplation. But a God who is here. Emmanuel, God with us. Down in the dirt and mess of human life. Even in our suffering.
God, as witnessed to by the Christian tradition offers us that mysterion, that glimpse, that scratch of the surface of the deeper reality. We haven’t been given an airtight answer. But we’ve been given a revelation, a face-to-face vision of the truth about God.
And our passage from Second Corinthians provides us with a wonderful example. Of what we can say about God. Not information about God. But who God is. And what God is up to in the world. How God gives himself to us in response to our suffering.[iv]
First, when it comes to suffering, we can speak of who God is.
Our scripture passage begins with a poetic blessing of God. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies and the God of all consolation.” It’s not just any God we’re talking about. But Christians believe that God is most fully revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Meaning that Jesus is what God is like.[v] And in Jesus’ own life, God is shown to be the “Father of all mercies and consolation.” In Jesus, we see a God of infinite compassion, infinite patience, infinite love that goes to death and back for us. Like Son, like Father.
When it comes to God and suffering, we can say that God is therefore not hostile to us. Not vengeful, or vindictive, or sadistic. God does not will our destruction, and God is not the source of that mystery of evil in our lives and world. God’s only desire for us is healing and wholeness. Mercy and consolation.
Second, because of who we believe God is, we can say what we believe this God is up to. In our lives and world.
God is revealed in Jesus as the “Father of mercies and God of all consolation,” says our passage. And God is the One who “consoles us in all our affliction.” God consoles. I remember somebody saying once that “Jesus’ crucifixion puts to death the notion that only good things happen to good people.”[vi] Suffering is unavoidable, for the good and the wicked. On the cross, Jesus doesn’t avoid suffering. Jesus embraces it head on, and in doing so we see God embrace the suffering sin of the world. God doesn’t ensure that suffering doesn’t happen to us. But instead God takes on our suffering. God brings comfort, God brings strength, God brings courage, in and through our suffering. Notice, too, here that it says that God consoles in all our afflictions. That God doesn’t discriminate between the afflictions we bring on ourselves, or the ones that come to us beyond our control or circumstance. God is not a “told ya so” God that leaves sinners to their own devices. But God, as Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew,” sends the rain on the just and unjust alike.”
God does not inflict suffering, but enters in to it. If God is like Jesus, God gives herself to us in consoling, forgiving, unconditional loving. That’s point two.
Okay, now the third, and final point. Because of who we believe God is, we can say what God’s up to in the world. And then can say why God does it. What’s God’s goal is.
And this is the subject of the rest of the passage. “So that,” says Paul. “So that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.” We are given consolation, given healing, not just for ourselves. It’s not a gift that is just for us as individuals, meant to be hoarded. No, we are consoled in order to be transformed. We’re consoled so we might share the good news, and join God in consoling others. God’s grace comes to us on the way to somebody else.
In the same way God in Christ takes on our sufferings, we’re to take on the sufferings of others. God doesn’t cause our sufferings, but God can use even our suffering, and our brokenness to bring blessing to a hurting world. And maybe that’s the scary part. Because finding an answer to a question would actually be less costly than obeying Jesus who says “take up your cross and follow me.” A simple answer to a question would be easier than dying to ourselves, and joining God in getting our hands dirty for love of neighbor. And God’s good world.
Even if the suffering itself doesn’t have meaning, our suffering can be given meaning when it’s taken up into God’s life, God’s story, and God’s work of redemption. And that’s God’s ultimate goal. God’s endgame. A new heaven, and a new earth. That’s the third and final point.
There’s no easy answer, as I said, to the problem of suffering. It’s a mystery we can’t fully understand, and probably never will, until we see God face-to-face. And that can be tough for us rational, 21st century scientific people to handle.
It takes what Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith.” A step out into the unknown in trust. Because, when we do, we’re given something so much more important, something so much more beautiful. So much more challenging than a simple answer. As Buechner says: “God doesn’t give us answers. God gives us himself.” What we’ve been given by our ancient tradition, what the wisdom of the elders is the gift of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. In his face we see a universe where love burns bright at the center. A love that does not wish us destruction, but Emmanuel, God with us. One who comes to us where we are. In our suffering and need to help us bear it. And to transform us into Christ’s image as bearers of mercy and consolation. Until every wound is mended. Until every injustice righted. And every tear wiped away.
It’s no airtight answer. But in the end, maybe God herself is better than an answer for those who choose to take this leap of faith. To reach out. And trust.
[i] C.S. Lewis says that what we usually refer to as “suffering” is actually pain. See his helpful, though still not unproblematic, treatment of suffering in The Problem of Pain.
[ii] This sermon, most especially this section, is based on Douglas John Hall’s theology of the cross. See Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986).
[iii] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (New York: HarperCollins, 1977). It was so good I thought it was Karl Barth who said it!
[iv] The structure of my argument here is borrowed directly from Wayne E. Oates, “Suffering,” in The Handbook of Themes for Preaching, ed. James Cox (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991), 228-229.
[v] “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known what God is like—But now we do.” Brian Zanhd, “God is Like Jesus,” Brian Zahnd’s Personal Website, August 11, 2011. https://brianzahnd.com/2011/08/god-is-like-jesus-2/
[vi] Will Willimon, I believe. But can’t remember.